For nearly half a century, Frank Bidart has been obsessed by a single theme. In this brilliant new collection, he calls it “hunger for the absolute”: our seemingly inescapable need for purity and perfection, for some significance that transcends the organic. Whether this hunger leads to philosophy or religion, politics or love or art, it both instills our lives with meaning and makes them intolerable.
For much of his career, Bidart has explored this theme through long poems written in various personae. (One of these poems, “Herbert White,” was recently made into a film by James Franco, who has championed Bidart’s work.) In Metaphysical Dog, he attempts an accounting of how hunger for the absolute has been the fuel of his own life.
Almost without exception he sees it as a destructive force, beginning with the early “God-hunger” that made him eager to join the ranks of “priests, addicted to // unanswerable but necessary questions, / also everywhere addicted to cruel answers.” As he has in earlier poems, Bidart unequivocally rejects the Catholicism of his youth and the loathing of sex and the body it demanded, calling it an “ecstasy...in which you call the God who made / what must be obliterated in you love.”
But he’s equally suspicious of secular regimes of purity. Several poems in this collection address ideas of America that have long urgently competed in our culture. One of these ideas is of the diverse, tolerant, impure nation celebrated in the poems of Walt Whitman. Against that vision Bidart sets the idea of a “real” or “pure” America, an idea that has been invoked with renewed force in some quarters since the election of an African-American president. In the poem “Inauguration Day,” Bidart presents an ominous image that might have been lifted from the evening news:
out across America I see since
nursing fantasies of purity betrayed,
dreaming to restore
the glories of their blood and state
No other poet sounds like Bidart, and even in these few lines you can hear the muscular physicality of his language, the way the sentence twists around the line breaks, never quite as expected. Bidart’s lines are very often beautiful, but they seldom move with conventional grace.
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